Football: One team, one goal, one championship

TA-Jaffa completes fairy-tale season with thrilling Israel Bowl III conquest over Jerusalem.

By URIEL STURM
March 29, 2010 10:54
Mike’s Place Tel Aviv Jaffa Sabres celebrate.

Mike’s Place TA Jaffa Sabres 311. (photo credit: Adlai Maschiach)

 
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Well after the raucous celebrations die down, the memories of Israel Bowl III will be stored in the drawer labeled “stories for the kids and grandkids.”

Not only for Evan Reshef and the Mike’s Place Tel Aviv-Jaffa Sabres, who captured their first Kraft Family IFL title with a scintillating 26-22 victory over the Big Blue Jerusalem Lions on Friday in the capital, but really for any tackle football fan in Israel.

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The first ever local game of pigskin to be broadcast live to a national TV audience was certainly a resounding success, and the Sabres demonstrated their superiority on the biggest stage by capping a worst-to-first dream campaign that threatened to go up in flames until Reshef intercepted Itay Ashkenazi at the goal line with 45 seconds remaining to thwart what had the makings of a game-winning drive.

“What a way to end such an unbelievable season,” exclaimed a Gatorade-drenched Reshef, who was named the MVP of the final with a dazzling performance that saw him notch a pair of touchdowns and save at least two more scores the other way with his defensive prowess.

“When I started playing tackle football back in Oklahoma as a child, I had no idea that some of my best moments in the sport would come 6,000 miles away. All year, our motto has been ‘one team, one goal’. Now that we have attained that goal together, we are on top of the world. Already, I can’t wait until next season to come back and defend our crown.”

The Lions, losers of the title game on a late pick coming just when they themselves looked poised to score for the second straight year, received a hot-and-cold performance from Ashkenazi, son of IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi. The 29-year-old quarterback courageously led his team back from a 26-14 deficit to the brink of glory, picking up two TDs on the ground and hooking up with Amichai Bergman for Jerusalem’s only other score on the day.

However, his pair of fourth-quarter interceptions – one to Erik Spitzer and the Favrian game-sealer to Reshef at the end – were ultimately the decisive plays of a disparaging finish to a remarkable season for Big Blue, now three-time finalists but just one-time victors.



“Honestly, this is what it’s all about,” professed a tearful Ashkenazi to The Jerusalem Post. “One play for the game, for the championship. So close. Unfortunately we, I, came up short. It will sting for a while, for sure, but we’ll be back next year, have no doubt about that.”

It also appears that tackle football in Israel will be sticking around for a while as well.

Friday’s game was held before a standing room-only crowd of close to 1,000 at Kraft Family Stadium and, despite the rainy conditions, the energy in the stands was crackling. In addition to Sport5, which was televising the contest, at least half a dozen other news outlets were on hand to capture the excitement of the country’s fastest-growing sport. (The IFL has over 350 players – over 70% of whom are native Israeli – with planned expansion for next season for growth to 10 teams and 2 divisions, as well the introduction of a brand new high school tackle football league and the formation of a national team.)

In the morning’s third-place game, the Papagaio Jerusalem Kings ended their season on a high note by dumping their arch-rivals, the Judean Rebels, 66-56, in a game that featured more than four times the amount of points as there were total minutes in the game.

While the high-scoring shootout was certainly entertaining, it was clearly the appetizer to a main event that more than satisfied all football appetites.

Jerusalem’s city council member responsible for sport, Elisha Peleg, met at midfield with the teams’ captains for the pre-game coin toss and the Sabres received the ball first. However, Tel Aviv-Jaffa QB Adi Hakami displayed some early jitters and had an errant pass picked off by Big Blue’s Yoni Cooper to stymie the opening drive.

Ashekenazi piloted his team down the field and took the ball into the endzone himself on a one-yard sneak for the 6-0 lead, but Reshef responded immediately, taking the ensuing kickoff 58-yards to the house to equalize before Hakami hit Jeremy Sable for the two-point conversion to stake the Redshirts to an 8-6 advantage.

The teams traded possessions before Jerusalem’s David Sidman muffed a punt deep that was recovered by the Sabres to give them the ball in the red-zone. Two plays later, Hammude Kassas bulldozed in for another six points to extend the lead.

However, Big Blue had plenty of fight in it and mounted a momentum-building drive to tie the score on Amichai Bergman’s 18-yard TD reception.

Tamir Elterman put Tel Aviv back on top before the half (20-14) and Reshef’s second score of the day made it 26-14 with time running out in the third quarter.

But Ashkenazi was able to hit Or Jupiter on a crucial third-and-long to set up his second keeper TD of the game and make it a one-score game heading to the final frame.

That was all the scoring there would be, however. The defenses on both teams really stepped up and refused to allow the game to be decided on their watch.

Big Blue had two great chances after starting possessions on the Sabres’ side of the field but couldn’t close the gap.

When Lions’ receiver Idan Yaron broke a couple of tackles to give his team a first-and-goal with just over a minute left, the hearts of every Tel Aviv-Jaffa fan dropped, and the players’ faces went ashen, thinking that all of their hard work would be for naught.

However, Reshef brilliantly read the play at the line and stepped in front of a quick slant to snag the ball and clinch the championship.

“I thought it was over,” shouted the Sabres’ relieved winning coach Jon Sharon over the din of the jubilant celebration. “I was sure Itay had pulled it out and I was trying to figure out how I was going to console my players.

“Luckily for us, Evan was able to conjure up just one last bit of magic. IFL Champion Tel Aviv-Jaffa Sabres. It definitely has a nice ring to it.”

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